IN HIS attempt to play down comparisons with Hearts legend John Robertson, head coach Robbie Neilson unwittingly likened James Keatings to the club’s all-time leading goalscorer.
“James has definitely got an instinct in the box; when he is in there you always feel something might happen,” said Neilson when asked about his summer recruit from Hamilton.
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That statement could easily be applied to Robertson in his heyday during the 1980s and 1990s, a period when the diminutive forward tormented defenders on his way to notching an incredible 214 league goals in 513 league appearances.
Given the high turnover of players in modern-day football, Keatings – a player who also has to rely on his clever footwork due to the lack of an aerial presence – is unlikely to get anywhere close to that tally at Hearts.
But his current goalscoring ratio – at a time when Neilson has been hamstrung by something of an injury crisis in attack with Osman Sow, Soufian El Hassnaoui and Dale Carrick out injured – has been recognised by the supporters and head coach alike.
Some fans who were fortunate to see Robertson in his pomp have even mentioned Keatings – who scored again yesterday – in the same breath as the Tynecastle goalscoring icon, pictured below right.
“James has still got a long way to go before he gets anywhere near Robbo,” said Neilson, who is set to unleash Keatings on city rivals Hibs in the third Edinburgh derby of the season next Saturday.
“Robbo did it year on year for 15 years.
“James is desperate to score goals. You get a lot of strikers that do a lot of good work outside the box but don’t score goals, but James is the other way about. He does most of his work in the box and scores goals. We knew he was that kind of striker, he is always a threat from cut-backs and any movement at all.”
Neilson cites his assistant Stevie Crawford’s influence on the training ground as a factor in Keatings’ rich vein of form.
“Stevie does a lot of work on James’ finishing; left foot, right foot, his movement and things we work on,” added Neilson.
“He is always desperate to do well and learn and Stevie has to take a lot of credit for it.”
It would come as no surprise if Keatings is among the players who Hearts owner Ann Budge was referring to when she said “many top-flight English clubs now have our young talent in their sights”.
With the January transfer window about to open and Hearts likely to be the subject of bids for their players, it is worth noting advice dispensed by midfielder Morgaro Gomis.
The 29-year-old, left frustrated by his lack of game time at Birmingham City when he left Dundee United in 2011, reckons the Hearts youngsters should draw inspiration from James McCarthy if they want to make it big in England.
Former Hamilton midfielder McCarthy, who departed Wigan for Everton in a £13m move 18 months ago, left Scotland with a wealth of first-team experience under his belt.
“The Championship is a demanding league, there are loads of players and the quality of the players is just crazy,” said Gomis.
“I was in a situation sometimes when I was in the stand for eight weeks in a row, and out of the blue I would be on the bench. It was just crazy.
“When I went down there I thought I was going to play week-in, week-out – then it was a big wake-up call when I got there.
“For a younger player, I think you definitely need to stay somewhere and play loads of football.
“Sometimes I speak to them and give them the example of James McCarthy, who played for Hamilton and is now at Everton.
“He started playing first-team football when he was 16 and moved to England when he was 19. That’s a good example that they can look at for someone that was playing week-in, week-out before they got their move down south.”
With Hearts on a solid financial footing, director of football Craig Levein admitted at the recent annual meeting that it would take a “ridiculous” offer for the club to even consider selling any of their players.
From what he has seen during the first half of the campaign, Gomis, who moved to Gorgie from Dundee United during the summer, reckons his team-mates would not be out of their depth in England.
Gomis added: “Sometimes you can’t say no, sometimes it’s football and you have to take your chance and go.
“All the young boys are really good players and if any of them were to move down south, I think they will be ready for it.
“They did well last season even though they went down and you can see from the way they’re playing this season that they’re enjoying their football. I think all the young boys are ready to play anywhere.
“Of course, if you’re going to move down south, you have to make sure that you’re going to sign for a club that you’re going to play for.
“Sometimes it’s better to stay with a team when you know you’re going to play week-in, week-out.”
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